Sweet Smell of Success, Arcola Theatre, London

Just as the film of this most American of tales was directed by a Scotsman (albeit an American-born one), Alexander Mackendrick, so the 2002 Broadway premiere of the late Marvin Hamlisch’s musical version was directed by another Brit, Nicholas Hytner. Its British premiere, in contrast, has been helmed by the native-Turkish Mehmet Ergen on the occasion of the reopening of his Dalston venue, the Arcola. Ergen rightly finds as deep a vein of cynicism in this story of media abuse as in Chicago without the latter’s excuse of satire.

New York, 1952, and gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (a thinly disguised Walter Winchell figure) makes and breaks reputations almost on a whim. Having first taken under his wing the struggling press agent Sidney Falcone (whom he renames Falco), Hunsecker then pressures Falco to break up the relationship between the columnist’s sister Susan and aspiring singer Dallas. The tension in the story consists of the fascinated horror with which we watch how far Falco will go to oblige, and our apprehension for the consequences of his final refusal.

Adrian der Gregorian lacks the edge for a consummate Falco: he is by nature sleek rather than hungry, and too assured to begin sweating with desperation sufficiently early into Falco’s Act Two machinations. David Bamber, however, makes a beautifully abrasive Hunsecker, part-Leo G Carroll, part-Barry Goldwater, and leaves it as late as possible before utilising his talent for opening a crack through which the livid light of unfulfilment breaks.

Hamlisch’s score is an accomplished pastiche of the period’s jazz, tending towards denser and more blaring compositions. In a small venue such as the Arcola, however, this means that despite there being as much Perspex acoustic baffling as possible, Bob Broad’s seven-piece band is sometimes so loud that the singers can only keep up by dint of over-amplification. John Guare’s book lacks the defiant squalor of Clifford Odets’ screenplay; with actors so often aware that they are being aphoristically sardonic, more of the performances feel as if they are inside quotation marks.


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